Let's think about the theme of freedom in August Wilson's play Gem of the Ocean. First, what is freedom? Is it merely a label like saying, “The slaves are all free now”? Or is it a state of reality, as in being able to determine one's own course of life? Or is it a state of mind, as in those who embrace freedom in their hearts are truly free? Or is it a combination of all of these?
Certainly freedom is more than a mere label, for many of the characters in Gem of the Ocean may be freed slaves or the children of freed slaves, but they do not have the ability to determine their own course in life. Take Garret Brown, for instance. Garret is an innocent man; he did not steal the bucket of nails from the mill. Yet he is accused, and no one will believe his pleas of innocence. He is not really free, for there are people, like Caesar, who would be quick to imprison him for a crime he did not commit. His word counts for nothing. Garret, however, believes that he is taking his true freedom when he decides to lose his life rather than falsely admit his guilt.
There are other characters in the play who are not truly free in their states of life either. Solly's sister, Eliza, in Alabama is technically free; at least, she's not a slave. But she writes to Solly that “the times are terrible here the most anybody remember since bondage.” Black people cannot leave the area at all, and they are often beaten and even killed. Eliza isn't sure how much longer she can hold on under those circumstances. Citizen, who arrived from Alabama only a month before, actually had to sneak out of the state in order to travel north.
Even in the North, though, Black people are rarely truly free, especially those who work at the mill, for they end up deeply in debt to their employer and cannot quit their jobs. That's what happens to Citizen. He borrows money, and his paycheck goes to pay his debt, leaving him with nothing. That's why he steals a bucket of nails. “Making the people owe is worse than slavery,” Citizen remarks to Solly. Citizen's crime actually imprisons him far more than any jail could, however, for he experiences extreme guilt. He knows that he is responsible for Garret's death, at least in part, and his soul seems to be in bondage. Aunt Ester finally helps him let go of that guilt (by admitting what he had done) and find mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom.
Out of all the characters in the play (with the possible exception of Aunt Ester), Solly Two Kings has the strongest ideas about freedom, what it means, what it doesn't, and how one should use it. Solly was born into slavery, but he ran away, making his way to Canada in 1857. When he got there, however, he says, “It didn't feel right being in freedom and my mom and all the other people still in bondage." Solly became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and carried sixty-two people to freedom. That's what made him truly free. He continues to seek true freedom for others, which is why he burns down the mill, for he believes it is a place of bondage just as much as a slave plantation. In the end, Solly (who nearly escapes Caesar's wrath) again decides to risk his own freedom to save others. He returns to try to free those imprisoned after the riots at the mill and loses his life in the process, but somehow in that act of returning to face the consequences of his actions and help others, Solly embraces the truest freedom, for he is free in his mind, heart, and soul.